Indigenous Peoples Day and Finding My Voice

Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution

I want to take a moment to commemorate Indigenous Peoples' Day. In addition to a growing national recognition, this day for me is personal.

At 19 years old I was a student leader on my campus. As part of the student government, my role was specifically focused on multicultural student programming and collective action. Along with the President and VP of the student government (who are both staunch allies to this day), we wrote a resolution that Colorado State University recognize, rather than Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples. We, of course, enlisted the wisdom of student, staff, and faculty leaders affiliated with what is now the Native American Cultural Center.

I remember this so vividly:

In the research and writing of the resolution, we also socialized the idea with a number of the University senators who would actually be voting on it. OMG, we got no love. There was not a glimmer of hope in sight.

I  met with students, staff, and faculty across all of the advocacy offices, trying to muster up support. We needed to know if what we were pushing for was supported by them, that they thought it would make a difference. More than anything, we needed them to show up at the upcoming senate meeting where the resolution would be read and voted on.

In the weeks leading to the meeting, Craig (President), Carrie (VP), and I would huddle together in the student government office of the student center into wee hours of the night strategizing on how to get the vote passed. Craig had the brilliant idea of filibustering. We had "War and Peace"—our extremely long reading of choice—at the ready.

I called my dad and asked him to come to town to support me. He did, as always.

The student government meeting, when the resolution would be presented and debated on the student senate floor, was scheduled at the same time as the Native American Cultural Center meeting, the El Centro meeting, and the Black Student Services meeting. Go figure.

As the meeting opened, Craig, Carrie, and I, along with my dad and a small handful of student government leaders, walked into the large senate chambers. We sat through the drone of business as usual then it was time for our resolution. Not one Black, Indigenous, or Person of Color (BIPOC) was in the senate chambers other than my dad and me. Craig and I presented the history of Columbus’s exploits in the U.S. We described that Columbus did not, in fact, discover America. That, according to this National Geographic article, “his arrival—and subsequent three additional voyages over the next twelve years—...shepherded in an era of exploitation and colonization of North and South America. (Note: The details about the torture, murder, rape, massive spread of germs that infected and killed hundreds of thousands of indigenous people are well-documented. At this point, I hope that all of us are curious enough to do a little research [which is all that’s required] to put into context what’s been celebrated as a major victory for the U.S. for far too long.) 

We tried to stretch our time on the floor, hoping for other student leaders to appear. Nothing. Then it happened, we actually started to filibuster. Out came War and Peace, and Craig went into full theatrical–and slow–motion. We had no choice! It was awful. I thought the senators were going to start throwing things at us. 

Just when I thought my heart would burst, we saw them coming. (I SWEAR that every word of this story is true!) A HUGE group of students, all at the same time, descended into the senate chambers. They didn’t file into the rows. They stood around the entire perimeter of the senate chambers. I looked at my daddy, we both had tears heavily streaming down our faces. 

So why do I tell this story? 

Because it’s important to put context–a real person–around the idea of speaking truth to power. Listen, I was the most unlikely of student leaders. 

  • I am first-generation college-educated. 
  • Growing up as a Jehovah's Witness, my entire childhood I was actively encouraged to never even consider college, let alone prepare for it. 
  • My GPA, for the first TWO semesters in college, was 1.6. 
  • As a child, my parents didn’t talk about race or power or oppression. I didn’t know about any of these topics until I was 17 and in college. 

Despite my lack of readiness, though, I didn’t see myself as having a choice. I couldn’t fathom any action other than the one I took that day in the early 1990s and now take every day. 

Being totally transparent: Every day I’m still afraid when I speak truth to power. 

When I was 19, it took all the power I had to look in the eye of those all white male student senators, wearing Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, and oversized silver belt buckles, condescending smirks on their faces. I could tell what they thought about me. Even writing it brings back a visceral memory, and the negative emotion felt then washes over me again. Now, speaking truth to power is tip-toeing around clients or potential clients for fear of not getting or losing a contract. Sure, it's easy to say that I will stand in my truth and disregard their money, but I have to live. I have to raise my son. DJA is a whole team of people who are counting on paychecks and benefits for which I am responsible. 

This is a quandary that so many of us find ourselves in now: how do we speak truth to power without selling our souls? We do it together, friends, and with our allies. Craig and Carrie stood side-by-side with me and that meant the mean glares coming from those senators were distributed rather than solely mine to absorb. My amazing friends and student leaders from across all of the CSU advocacy offices and beyond, they didn’t leave me hanging. Now, I am surrounded by people who help me build my inner courage and continue to support me when I fall short of the boldness I so desire to have consistently present. 

Want to know how it ended? 

The resolution passed. It was right out of a movie. (Ask my daddy, he’ll confirm.) After all of the senators cleared the chambers, I was summoned by one of the student leaders, who was also a tribal shaman. I found out that the delayed arrival of my student activist leaders was because they were preparing a gift for me. I was presented with a hawk feather, representing my guardian spirit, a gift to me for the period of my life. 

I guess this is as good a place as any to be right now, fully armed with enough humility to know that I am often afraid and unsure, with the passion to fight against the odds, the faith of my inner guardian nature, and the amazing allies and activists who are right there with me and us, every step of the way. 

Today, we honor the peoples and the ancestral land upon which we live and now call home. We commit to never forget the travesties and fight for accurate representation of history. Only through fully knowing and facing our past can we make intentional and equity-based choices for the future. 

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